10 Women Who Changed the World

Heroines who've made history

By Google Arts & Culture

Photo, Ida B WellsNational Susan B. Anthony Museum & House

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said that “well-behaved women rarely make history”, which is true of these 11 trailblazing and infinitely inspirational women who have made waves, pushed boundaries, and fundamentally changed the world we live in. From space exploration to computer programming, their accomplishments have shaped our world, but they also continue to inspire us to shape our future.

Ida B. Wells

Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells devoted her life to educating people about the horrors of discrimination and lynching. As editor and co-owner of The Memphis Free Speech, she channeled the power of the written word to awaken the nation's consciousness about the treatment of African Americans.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (c. 1893) by Sallie E. GarritySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In Crusade for Justice, her autobiography published posthumously in 1970, she explained that she wrote to record "the gallant fight and marvelous bravery of the black men of the South, fighting and dying to exercise and maintain their newborn rights as freemen and citizens."

Rukmini Devi Arundale Practising Bharatanatyam (2017) by Abhishek N. VermaZubaan

Rukmini Devi Arundale

In the early 20th century, the ancient Indian dance form of bharatanatyam was dying out. Traditionally practiced by lower status women in Hindu temples, the bharatanatyam and its practitioners were overlooked.

Meanwhile, Rukmini Devi Arundale traveled extensively conducting work for the Theosophical Society, a Western organisation interested in Asian religion and esotericism. While traveling, Arundale met the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, who encouraged her to learn ballet. This sparked her fascination with classical dance, and this interest grew into a passion for her own Indian traditional dance forms.

Rukmini Devi Arundale: The Bharatanatyam Legend (2017) by Abhishek N. VermaZubaan

Arundale subsequently opened several schools, including the Kalakshetra Foundation, an arts school that specialized in bharatanatyam. Arundale saved the tradition form from obscurity, and reinvented it with modern dance principles in the process.

Cecilia Grierson

Cecilia Grierson was a physician, activist, author, inventor, reformer and, most notably, the first woman to receive a medical degree in Argentina. She also founded the first nursing school in Argentina, at the Hospital Británico de Buenos Aires, seen here in Street View.

Suzanne Lenglen - Anvers 1920 (1920) by Photographer unknown / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

Suzanne Lenglen

Historically, tennis was a rigid affair. Amateurs couldn’t compete with pros, and participation fees were high. And then along came Suzanne Lenglen.

Suzanne Lenglen (1920-08-16) by GettyImagesThe Olympic Museum

Lenglen picked up her first racket in 1910 and, in less than five years, became the sport’s youngest champion and the world’s first female tennis star. More importantly, she broke down barriers through her passionate play, non-traditional wardrobe, and outspoken stance against the sport’s formalities. With Lenglen’s influence, tennis became a sport for all.

Lina Bo Bardi in the Glass House , project by Lina Bo Bardi, São Paulo, SP. Brazil (1952) by Albuquqerque, Chico Instituto Moreira Salles

Lina Bo Bardi

Born in Italy in 1914, Lina Bo Bardi moved to Brazil in 1946. Lina Bo Bardi was a pioneering Modernist architect who designed many iconic buildings, including The Glass House, where she lived with her husband, and the The São Paulo Museum of Art (otherwise known as MASP). MASP is one of the greatest landmarks in São Paulo, an architectural masterpiece with its innovative floating gallery that was complemented by the floating picture frames that Bo Bardi designed for the interior.

But Bo Bardi’s reach extended well beyond her architecture career: she was also a publisher, teacher, designer, curator and political activist. Bo Bardi was both a pioneer and a polymath.

Halet CambelThe Olympic Museum

Halet Cambel

After earning her doctorate from the University of Istanbul in 1940, Halet Cambel fought tirelessly for the advancement of archaeology. She helped preserve some of Turkey’s most important archaeological sites near the Ceyhan River and established an outdoor museum at Karatepe. There, she broke ground on one of humanity's oldest known civilizations by discovering a Phoenician alphabet tablet that unlocked the code to Hittite hieroglyphics. Her work won her a Prince Claus Award for preserving Turkish cultural heritage.

Halet Cambel (1936-08-04)The Olympic Museum

But as well as unearthing the secrets of the past, she also firmly addressed the political atmosphere of her present. As just a 20-year-old archaeology student, Cambel went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, becoming the first Muslim woman to compete in the Games. Cambel was later invited to meet Adolf Hitler but she rejected the offer on political grounds.

Miriam Makeba and Sonny Pillay (Not dated) by Ranjith KallyJohannesburg Art Gallery

Miriam Makeba

Born in Johannesburg during an economic recession, and witnessing the introduction of apartheid in 1948, Miriam Makeba’s early life was marred by tragedy and hardship.
But Makeba was a singer, and her voice was a vessel that would transport her out of her impoverished upbringing and challenging surroundings.

Miriam Makeba by Banksalve and CoGoDown Arts Centre

Makeba found success in the US with her hit songs “Pata Pata” and “The Click Song”, and she used her newfound fame to draw attention to the suffering and oppression of South Africa under apartheid. Makeba was exiled from South Africa for over 30 years, but continually worked to improve the lives of her countrymen and women. Nelson Mandela said, "Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us."

Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1840/1840) by UnknownBarbican Centre

Ada Lovelace

You might think that being the daughter of one of history’s most famous poets would inspire you to pursue a career in the arts – but not so for Ada Lovelace, daughter of George Gordon, aka. Lord Byron. Lovelace made her mark in a very different field: computers.

In fact, Ada Lovelace is generally recognised as the world's first ever computer programmer. She was an English mathematician and writer who worked on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. All the way back in 1843, she imagined a machine capable of extraordinary things, limited only by the creativity of its programmer, nearly a century before the first modern computers were built.

LIFE Photo Collection

Sally Ride

While completing her Ph.D. in physics, Sally Ride read an article in the Stanford student newspaper about NASA looking for astronauts for the new space shuttle program. For the first time, women were allowed to apply. Ride joined NASA’s 1978 class of astronauts that included six women.

Mission Specialist (MS) Ride at forward flight deck pilots stations controls (1983-06-24)NASA

When Ride blasted off aboard the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman to fly in space. Ride's historic flight made her a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls.

After retiring from NASA, Ride became a physics professor and an award-winning co-author of children’s science books. Ride also cofounded a science education organization to ignite students' enthusiasm for science. Ride inspired all of us to reach for the stars.

Frida Kahlo (1939, printed 1941) by Nickolas MurayGeorge Eastman Museum

Frida Kahlo

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in Mexico City, in her parents’ home, “La Casa Azul,” or “The Blue House.”

Frida Kahlo looking at the Sky, Coyoac��n, Mexico City, 1945. (1945) by Leo MatizFundación Leo Matiz

Kahlo’s early life was blighted by physical illness and impairment. Kahlo was just 18, on September 17th, 1925, when she was involved in a tragic bus crash, breaking several bones and causing significant damage to her spine. After the accident, in a full body cast and unable to move, Kahlo passed her time in bed. It was here that her mother brought her a portable easel and box of paints, and an artist was born.

Kahlo’s artistic talents only grew in both skill and recognition. Primarily known for her self-portraits and vivid depictions of her own body, Kahlo is revered for the way in which she captured female experience and embodiment in her artworks. Her paintings melded pain and passion, suffering and beauty, to powerful effect.

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937) by Frida KahloNational Museum of Women in the Arts

After her death, her beloved Blue House was opened as a museum in 1958, and is now dedicated to celebrating the life and work of this iconic artist and feminist thinker.

Self-portrait with Small Monkey (1945) by Frida KahloMuseo Dolores Olmedo

Some went thousands of miles to space to make their mark, while others made history from home, but all of these women were pioneers in their fields and are inspirations to us all.

Learn more about how women have impacted arts, culture, science, history and politics here.

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